123 of 136 people found the following review helpful
Niall Ferguson has made a name for himself as the historian of counterfactuals, or imaginative looks at "history as it could have been." He was the editor of Virtual History, which provides alternate scenarios of past events, and the author of The Pity of War, a look at World War I which concluded that the world would be immensely better off today if the British had stayed out in August 1914 and let the Germans win. Now in Empire Ferguson has given us a history of the British Empire which any nineteenth century imperialist would pronounce to be pukka, or first rate.
Basically Ferguson argues that the British Empire was a positive contribution to the world in that it gave its colonial possessions traditions like self-government and personal liberties. Ferguson does not maintain that there were no abuses of power or that none of the indigeneous peoples ruled by British officials were ever mistreated, but he does believe that on balance, more good was done than bad. He makes this argument most strongly in covering the twentieth century, when he points out that the British were much better colonial rulers than the Germans or Japanese were. Most of Empire's readers will undoubtedly agree with this point, but many will also wonder why it was necessary for the British to colonize these peoples in the first place. Ferguson is straightforward, saying that the original reason for imperialism was greed for products like tea. More highflown objectives like ending the slave trade and converting "primitive" areas to civilization and Christianity came much later,and never diverted attention for very long from the basic quest for wealth. Ferguson is also direct in saying that the major reason for the end of the Empire after World War II was that it was simply too expensive to keep going. The last pages are especially timely in that Ferguson speculates on the role of a revived imperialism of the twenty-first century in the hands of Britain's most famous former colony, the United States.
One of Empire's major flaws is its tendency to give short shrift to the cultures which came under British power. The Mughals of India are barely discussed, and Qing Dynasty China rates even less attention. Ferguson's basic attitude is that those cultures were no better, and in some ways much worse, than the British who came to dominate them. For another view of Britain's supposed superiority in governing Asian territories, you could read Mike Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts, which chronicles British ineptitude in dealing with famine in India and China.
The book is well written and beautifully illustrated. I hope that the British TV series it companions will eventually be shown on PBS. Like the book, it should be controversial and thought-provoking.
153 of 175 people found the following review helpful
on April 10, 2003
I almost didn't purchase this book, because some professional reviewers denigrated it as an "apology" for the British Empire. I'm glad I didn't listen to those reviewers and, after reading the book, I'm puzzled that anyone could come to that conclusion. Professor Ferguson spends a good portion of the book detailing many of the negative aspects of the Empire- the condescending and racist attitudes, frequently, that were displayed by the British towards subject peoples; the excessive use of force (literally, overkill) in places such as Omdurman (where the British, and their Egyptian and Sudanese auxilliaries, used Maxim machine guns to mow down their Islamic fundamentalist opponents, who were generally armed with rifles and swords. The fundamentalist forces had about 35,000 men killed, while the British lost about 400.) and Amritsar, India (where, in 1919, the British forces broke up a peaceful demonstration by firing on unarmed civilians and killing 379 and injuring 1,500 of them). Professor Ferguson also does not sweep British behavior during the Boer War under the historical carpet. He discusses the concentration camps the British set up to detain the wives and children of Boer soldiers. Conditions, especially in the beginning, were horrendous and many of the women and children died from hunger and disease. (When Sir Nevile Henderson complained to Goering about the Nazi concentration camps, Goering leapt at the chance to take out a German encyclopaedia which, under the entry for concentration camp, said this: "First used by the British in the South African War"). This being said, Professor Ferguson doesn't fail to point out some of the positive accomplishments of the Empire- the introduction of free trade to areas that otherwise would have engaged in protectionism; improvement in the living standards in many of the colonial areas, due to the above and also due to British investment in underdeveloped areas; the creation of infrastructure and the introduction of democracy and Western legal principles, etc. The thing that disturbs me about some of the professional reviews of this book is the tendency to see things in black and white. Empire is bad, and that's all there is to say. Well, most things in life are not black and white. Professor Ferguson spends the majority of the book outlining the bad aspects of the Empire, and he uses maybe 25% of the book to discuss the good things. This book is analytical, well-written (Professor Ferguson has an easy, breezy, informal style and, which is always a bonus in a book written by an academic, a refreshing sense of humor), and thought-provoking. There are also many wonderful color and black-and-white photographs which complement the text nicely. The only reason I didn't give the book 5 stars is that the ending is a bit weak. The book's subtitle is "The Rise And Demise Of The British World Order And The Lessons For Global Power." The conclusion is supposed to provide the lessons, but doesn't. Professor Ferguson makes the mistake of trying to make the book "relevant" to today. He should have left well-enough alone and stuck to just talking about the Empire. He makes the obvious point that the United States is the only nation capable today of having a position of global power equivalent to the position Britain used to hold. Fair enough. But what should the U.S. do with this power? Aye, there's the rub! Professor Ferguson doesn't really know, so he tosses in some vague generalities. He questions whether "...the dissemination of Western 'civilization'...can safely be entrusted to Messrs Disney and McDonald." He goes on to say, "But it (America) is an empire that lacks the drive to export its capital, its people and its culture to those backward regions which need them most urgently and which, if they are neglected, will breed the greatest threats to its security." Well, maybe we should ask some of the people in those "backward" places what THEY want. They probably would like the capital...I'm not so sure about wanting our people and our culture. This whole subject needs a book of its own (probably many books) for a proper discussion. My key point is that Professor Ferguson does himself a disservice by tossing off comments like this, which come across as afterthoughts...especially after the clockwork, smooth analysis which flows through the rest of the book. Still, overall, this is an excellent book for anyone who wants a well-balanced and comprehensive account of the rise and fall of the British Empire.
47 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on September 27, 2003
Let's start with the reviews. When you read them, try to keep in mind the simple fact that this book is both describing an historical era (the British Empire) and assessing it. Not all historians do the latter; and too many are content to do a boring job of the former. I think Ferguson does a superb job on both fronts, but it is nonetheless possible to disagree with his assessment of the empire while admiring his well-paced narrative and lavishly illustrated survey of it. How the Empire came into being; why it was British (as opposed to Spanish, Dutch or other); how it operated; how it was funded; who its beneficiaries were; what it did badly; the horrors of which it was guilty;piracy on high seas, the slave trade, its role in Africa, India, Australia, Ireland and elsewhere: Niall Ferguson captures it all. But not just that..He is interested in applying the lesson of Empire to the world today. It is the modern world, after all, that the Empire shaped for better or worse. And here we arrive at Ferguson's assessment. Readers might take issue with a balance sheet approach to the Empire, and they make take issue with the evaluation itself, but in providing us with such an assessment Ferguson brings the Empire to life in these pages. On net, the Empire was a positive good, if only because "in the end, the British sacrificed her Empire to stop the Germans, Japanese and Italians from keeping theirs. Did not that sacrifice alone expunge all the Empire's other sins?" Ferguson thinks so. I agree. Others may not. You don't need to agree with his conclusions, but you cannot walk away from the question, for now the United States is poised to be an Empire -- an Empire in denial in Ferguson's view -- and whether and to what extent the U.S. should assume, or can assume the role of an imperial power is upon us all. What do you think? This is what Ferguson is asking us to do in this outstanding work, in effecting saying: Here's the historical framework, here's what I make of it. Well, what do you think? Read Empire. Re-read it. Like it or not, the question of Empire is upon us.
31 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on August 28, 2005
This book is well written, its premises well defended, and its attempted neutrality reasonably well balanced. The unpleasant surprise is the conclusion. After considering everything, this book actually defends the British Empire. Surely you must be joking, Professor Ferguson. The audacity of the conclusion is what makes this an important book. It warns us that if even erudite historians like Prof Ferguson can defend the Empire, we have a long way to go before we learn from History.
I was born in independent India. I recognize that the final balance sheet of the British Rule is mixed, and that the distribution of positives and negatives may be debatable. I accept that several British institutions have had a beneficial impact in India. I also realize that what happened, has happened. It is futile to find demons and heroes in our past. We need to accept that past and move ahead.
And yet, here is Prof Ferguson raising the demons. Here he is arguing that, after all, the Empire was 'not all bad'. My key disagreement is a very subtle defence of 'white man's burden'. What gave Robert Clive, followed by the Queen the right to assume the role of saviors. Their greed may have had some unintended beneficial side effects, but those still do not give them a right to impose their will by deceit and force.
What is truly dangerous about Prof Ferguson's views is that he defends the right to overcome self-determination and independence. I wonder how his philosophy is any different from those intolerant extremists who find the British way of life abhorrent and use violent means to change it. I wonder how Prof Ferguson would have felt if the Third Reich had conquered Britain and made the trains run on time. Would that have compensated for a significant drain of British national wealth, and an occasional shooting spree by the likes of Gen Dyers. Mr Churchill, the great defender of the British Empire, would not reacted as positively to the benefits of German Empire, if the subjects were British. So is it all about 'my Empire' vs 'your Empire'? Surely you must be joking, Prof Ferguson. And it is a cruel joke. I hope and pray that you do not cause a revival of the lust for Empire building. History will then repeat itself, first as a tragedy, and then as a farce.
167 of 216 people found the following review helpful
on March 14, 2005
The case for the British empire, as in this book, often boils down to `India' and assumes that India (the Republic) and British India are one and the same. And this is the source of all misconceptions that British rule was benign with a few "warts". Or that the colonized nations wouldn't have any development otherwise.
British India covered parts of the territories of modern states of Burma (almost all of it), Bangladesh (all of it), Pakistan (>60%) and India (about 55%). It is easy to see that Burma, Bangladesh and Pakistan do not rate highly in terms of democracy, human rights, rule of law, free markets, economic progress, infrastructure, quality of life or any metric one can think of.
In the case of India, comparisons of British ruled and Indian ruled parts are almost never made. It would be instructive to do so if we are to really draw up a balance sheet of empire. Calcutta was directly ruled by the British (it was their capital for 100 years, before Delhi came under their control for the last 90 years), while they never ruled Bangalore. The British started in the eastern part of the subcontinent and ruled it for the longest period of time. That's where you find the states of West Bengal (with Calcutta as its capital), Bihar (the poorest, most backward, most lawless, most undemocratic state), Assam (very poor, ridden with ethnic conflicts, world's last natural case of small pox), Orissa (extremely poor), Uttar Pradesh (violent, poor) and the nation of Bangladesh (formerly East Bengal). These parts aren't attracting any foreign or private domestic investment and lag behind the rest of the country on every economic and social measure.
It is the rest of India, (south-west, west and north-west) ruled by Indian kings, where you find economic and social progress. Travancore-Cochin (part of Kerala state in the south-west, often referred to as the "paradox" because its social indicators are like western nations even though it is part of India), Mysore (south west, part of Karnataka state including Bangalore), Hyderabad (south-central, now part of Andhra Pradesh state with Hyderabad city as its capital, now part of the software outsourcing related economic boom), Gujarat (western most - farthest from the British, India's most industrialized state), Rajasthan (north-west, a desert and hence left alone, one of the fastest economic growth rates, tourism - of course nobody visits or recommends visiting the real British India), Punjab-Haryana (north-west, richest, green revolution). These regions have the fastest growth rates, get the most foreign and domestic investment (almost all domestic businessmen come from these parts, even in British India).
What is missing from the debate about colonialism at the popular level is comparative data between British India and Indian-ruled India. Just the knowledge that the British didn't rule all of India would spark the curiosity of most people and lead to this kind of comparison. And that would put an end to this `on balance it was a good thing' idea.
For maps of British India refer to the Digital South Asia library
(Maps from the Imperial gazetteer of India published by the British colonial government of India)
For information on the Indian economy refer to the economic survey published by the government of India
24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on May 16, 2003
The main reason to read Ferguson's Empire is to learn more about this strange beast, mostly ignored or derided over the last half-century. An empire has its own circulatory system, its own way of extending its arms, and has not really been treated as a serious subject for decades. It provides another way of studying the history of globalization, and offers a coherent approach not available through other means. But does the subject have the vividness and drama to sustain a coffee table tome? And can an Oxford historian whose claim to fame has been two 400-page volumes on an 18th century Jewish banker make it worth reading? Is this thing worth the exertion to heft, let alone finance? And why should Americans even care about somebody else's past glories?
The book provides its own answer: it is worthwhile on every count. Indeed the subject grips you, the story is told dramatically, the plot twists and turns, there are lively characters. The text breaths, like something delivered energetically in a lecture hall, with passion. The pictures are a beautiful complement to what you read. From chapter one through the last, Empire reads well, informing as it entertains. On that basis alone the work is worth reading, and given the cost, worth owning (and flaunting) for a long time.
But does it actually make the case that the Empire helped the U.K. and the world as a whole? This matter seeps through the body of the text, but steps forward in both the introduction and conclusion. And further, an additional matter thrusts itself forward: should the U.S. take heed of this history and assume the imperial mantle, though it does not seem to want it or show much promise of carrying it well, given its short attention span and allegiance to "democratic traditions?"
It is this issue of Empire's worth and the U.S.'s potential imperial role that has driven this book and its author into the limelight. The argument is not made in the body of the text, but instead surfaces there only in a few places with a more forceful articulation in the introduction and conclusion. Ferguson admits a fondness for empire in the introduction, and the conclusion adds an American angle.
One can appreciate an excellent work of history, and then address this application of history within a philosophical argument about the British past and the American future. You can feel reasonably well armed for the debate on reading the body of the text, and can have some fun with the political argument. So despite its bulk and museum-like quality, Empire can serve as a springboard for serious thought and discussion. Not a bad way to spend at bit of time!
22 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2004
There are two books here. Niall Ferguson apparently feels no emotional attachment towards the British Empire before the mid to late 19th Century, and the portion of the book dealing that period is straightforward and honest. Both the good (the ending of the slave trade, the banning of the practice of widow-burning in India) and the bad (nearly everything else) are presented, though I think a bit more about the Opium Wars could have been added. But Ferguson wants the reader to appreciate the idealism of the later Empire and in the later parts of the book he starts pulling his punches. The Indian famines so graphically described in Mike Davis's "Late Victorian Holocausts" are barely mentioned--Ferguson informs us that they shouldn't be compared to Nazi crimes because the British didn't intend to kill millions of people. They merely stuck to their free market dogmas no matter how many people were dying. (One could say the same about Mao, who also didn't mean to cause 10-30 million to starve to death in the Great Leap Forward). Ferguson spends pages on the tortures inflicted on British POW's by the undeniably savage Japanese militarists, but neglects to mention India's last great famine under British rule in 1943, which took 3 million lives.
Ferguson is probably right that the British Empire had a mixed record of good and evil, but I've seen exactly the same case made for the rule of Mao Zedong. Yes, so the argument goes, Mao caused tens of millions of deaths with his policies, but even with all those deaths life expectancy in China doubled during his rule. But no sensible person thinks that one fact cancels out the other. The same could be said about Ferguson's beloved Empire and in fact at one point he does point to the increase in life expectancy in India under British rule. But one can't whitewash great crimes with great accomplishments.
All that said, I think this was a highly informative book, though readers are learning less about the dark side of the Empire than they might realize. (Imagine a history of Mao's China which relegated the massive famine of the Great Leap Forward to one footnote.) But one shouldn't take Ferguson's moral pronouncements very seriously.
36 of 46 people found the following review helpful
In his book, Empire, Professor Niall Ferguson argues that the British Empire was the grand provider of five institutions for the world: "the triumph of capitalism as the optimal system of economic organization", "the Anglicization of North America and Australasia", "the internationalization of the English language", "the enduring influence of the Protestant version of Christianity", and "the survival of parliamentary institutions, which far worse empires were poised to extinguish in the 1940s". While acknowledging that empires are far from perfect, Ferguson allows the reader to decide "whether there could have been a less bloody path to modernity." In the brief conclusion, he identifies America being in the same role Britain was for four centuries and the lessons it can learn from its forebear.
In each of Empire's six chapters, Ferguson gives a distinct theme both in terms of globalization and the human dynamics, chronologically weaving the two together, e.g. commodity markets/pirates, labour markets/planters, culture/missionaires, government/mandarins, capital markets/bankers, and warfare/bankruptcies.
Ferguson points out that the British were imitating the Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese empires at the time, countering the myth that England was the first industrial nation. China and India were homes to the imports the British craved, but there was nothing the British had that those two countries wanted, so the British had to make cash purchases with gold and silver bullion. The significance of this trading arrangement led to globalization, "the integration of the world as a single market"
Ferguson does not omit the darker moments, such as the Myall Creek Massacre in Australia (1838) and the massacre of Amristar (1919). Yet he places culpability on misguided groups and individuals who were aberrations in the role of British administrators, weighing in with the presence of a distant "restraining authority" in London to halt the excesses of their colonists, a dynamic not present during the American campaign against the Native Americans. The good intentions the British had can be labelled as the three C's: commerce, civilization, and Christianity. Ferguson then lists a fourth "C" that unfortunately emerged in conjunction with the other three: conquest.
The reasons for the Empire's fall, is World War I, post-war territorial overstretch from the Ottoman Empire and Germany, and a tenfold increase in the national debt. Reduced defense spending thus allowed Hitler and Mussolini to run riot in the 1930's. He also briefly goes into the Japanese atrocities at Nanking. India could have used WWII to break free, "but ... had to look at the way the Japanese conducted themselves... to see how much worse the alternative before them was".
Then there were nationalist uprisings, such as the Easter Rising in Ireland (1916) and the one in Amritsar; what they both revealed was the schizophrenic nature of the British response: "harsh on the ground but then emollient at the top."
Ferguson accounts for the darker moments and failures of the British Empire, but in a broad context, concludes as follows: "In the end, the British sacrificed her Empire to stop the Germans, Japanese, and Italians from keeping theirs. Did not that sacrifice along expunge all the Empire's other sins?" He heavily tilts the emphasis on economic, with military and administrative dynamics coming in a close tied second. The last part of the title, "the Lessons for Global Power," tells Americans to take the initiative and realize that their country is traversing down the same road as Britain.
Ferguson uses a few techniques to make this book eye-grabbing. One is the use of contemporary phrases on past events. The laying out of telegraph wires on the ocean floor--an "imperial information superhighway." How the telegraph and steamship shrank the world is reminiscent of how the Internet has done so from the late 1990's. His use of contemporary expressions extend to recent events. He likens the Mahdi in Sudan as an 1880's version of Osama bin Laden, the massacre of General Gordon and his forces as a miniature 11 September, and the 1898 Battle of Omdurman to the Gulf War and the war against the Taliban. He also uses maps and statistical figures, which contributes to the Empire's economic dynamics. And he peppers the book with paintings, political cartoons, many of them unflattering towards the British Empire, and black-and-white photographs.
I found this book very fascinating despite its subtle nationalist bent, explaining blank spots in my knowledge of the British imperial experience, and seeing it from a predominantly economic perspective helped.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on March 6, 2006
I am not accustomed to reading books on history. This book is ideal for someone like me. At only 380 pages, this book does not intimidate, yet draws the reader in, and gives him an overview and basic understanding of how the British Empire came about (mostly by accident) and how it came to an end (WW1 and WW2). In between it offers interesting chapters on America, Africa and India. In particular the section on the Indian Raj has inspired me to pursue other books on this topic.
A great read and a concise treatment on what is a massive subject matter. 5 stars.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on May 13, 2004
It is exceedingly difficult to challenge Ferguson's bold claim that the British Empire, despite all its vices (e.g. the Sudan "imperial overkill" in 1898) and regrettable vestiges (e.g. slavery and racism), was essentially `good' because it disseminated certain -unquestionably desirable- features of the British society that range from the "idea of liberty" to "team sports," and most importantly to capitalism and representative democracy.
It is difficult to discard Ferguson's claim at once mainly because of the strong prima facie evidence that there actually is a connection between British rule and the "enhanced global welfare." Yet inferring causality from this connection, and more importantly making an essentially normative judgment (i.e. British empire was good for the colonized states because they prospered ultimately) is much more problematic than Ferguson portrays it. I have two main criticisms: one involves Ferguson's treatment of the imported British values as a single and indivisible package that can be absorbed by the colonized in its entirety, and the other one has to do with the methodological difficulties associated with the "counterfactual logic" that informs Ferguson's historical analysis. Let me start with the latter.
In the introductory chapter of the book, Ferguson lists the values that the British Empire disseminates to the rest of the globe and then he asks the following question: "would other empires have produced the same effects?" "It seems doubtful," according to Ferguson. The main support for this counterfactual claim comes from such anecdotal and again counterfactual evidence as "New Amsterdam [would not] be the New York we know today if the Dutch had not surrendered it to the British in 1664." From the strict social scientific point of view, however, this reasoning is essentially flawed since it is not falsifiable.
Consider Ferguson's argument in terms of the "necessary and sufficient conditions" that inform social scientific inquiry. Does Ferguson argue that British colonization is a "sufficient" condition for the emergence of capitalism and representative democracy in the former colonies? Highly unlikely, I would say, given such failures in the consolidation of democracy as in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma, Tanzania and Zimbabwe to name a few. What about the existence of former British rule in a country as a necessary condition for capitalism and democracy? This is probably closer to Ferguson's portrayal of the connection between imperialism and democracy/capitalism. However, this conceptualization is still quite problematic. Even if we accept Ferguson's claim that British Empire was better than any other conceivable empire, the question of necessary conditions still stands because of a crucial flaw in Ferguson's historical account: the lack of consideration of an alternative to imperial rule.
Underlying Ferguson's entire analysis is a tacit assumption that imperial rule was practically inescapable. India was to be ruled by either the Moghuls or the British, and since the British built so many railways in India, established the institutions of a future parliamentary democracy and taught the Indians the English language (which would in the future make them the most desirable technicians in multinational high tech companies) the latter was better for the Indians. Yet it is very tempting to use the counterfactual reasoning against Ferguson and ask whether it would be possible for India, or for any other country, to embrace capitalism and parliamentary democracy in the absence of the British? If there is any such possibility, that would complicate Ferguson's picture. If the Indians could have established a working parliamentary democracy, without having to endure the imperialism, (i.e. all the benefits of the modern world minus the costs of foreign rule) this should be more appealing than the imperial path, especially to an economically minded historian like Ferguson.
The theoretical problem is not only the possibility of an alternative, i.e. non-imperial, route to modernity. What is more significant and disturbing is that in arguing the British' imposition of their own image on the colonies -however innately desirable that image can be- was essentially a good thing, Ferguson loses sight of the fact that imperialism is an interactive process with two parties. The values and institutions of the colonized clash those of the colonizer and filter the absorption of certain elements of that package. "The idea of liberty," the central component of Ferguson's package of the imported British values, is more difficult to entrench in a country than the actual parliamentary institutions. Yet the problem is without the former being fully entrenched, the latter cannot work properly. The result has been unstable democracies, and incomplete modernities in many former colonies. Consequently, it is difficult to judge whether the British rule facilitated the emergence of democracy in colonized countries or precluded its full-scale consolidation.
True that it is highly difficult to conceptualize a process of dissemination of western values without a strong agency to "carry the burden," which is what makes Ferguson's portrayal of the role of the British Empire in the formation of the contemporary global order so appealing. Difficult but by no means impossible. In fact, since the underlying assumption that directly informs Ferguson's passionate analysis is that both capitalism and representative democracy are innately desirable, it would be logically erroneous to argue that the dissemination of these values would preclude a more peaceful process of modernization.